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Salvadoran American Voters in San Francisco Divided Over Tough-on-Crime Approach

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Demonstrators rally against the reelection of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in San Francisco on his Inauguration Day on June 1, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

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Sitting at a table in the center of her family’s pupusería in the Mission District, Aminta Calderón recalled her experience voting online for Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in the country’s Feb. 4 election.

“My daughter helped me to vote on my cellphone,” Calderón said in Spanish. She added that she took out her identification card issued by the Salvadoran government, and “she logged into the website and there, easy.”

Calderón was excited to vote for the incumbent.

She is one of 322,000 Salvadorans living abroad who overwhelmingly voted for Bukele earlier this year. The incumbent’s controversial yet popular, tough-on-crime policies earned him an average of 96.5% of expatriate online and in-person votes.


Salvadorans are the second-largest Latino population in San Francisco, and with concerns about rising crime throughout the city, the idea of voting for a more law-and-order-leaning candidate is a political force in the community. Bukele’s popularity, however, has also moved progressives in the area to mobilize against the Salvadoran president’s influence abroad and in San Francisco.

Aminta Calderón poses for a photo inside of her family’s pupusería in the Mission District in San Francisco on June 3, 2024. Calderón voted online for Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in the country’s Feb. 4 election. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Calderón, 73, is firmly in the law-and-order camp. She recounted the danger she faced in El Salvador from both its civil war and growing gang violence. She decided to flee her country in 1995 after being shot at by men attempting to steal goods from her trucking business. She sold off what little she had and immigrated to San Francisco, where she’s operated various food businesses over her time in the Bay Area.

Her work allowed her to send remittances to her family in El Salvador so they could afford basic necessities.

She also stayed informed about violence in her home country and believed it would never change — until Bukele took office in 2019.

“He eliminated all those massacres by putting many gang members in jail,” Calderón said.

Bukele’s influence on U.S. Latino voters

Two weeks after Bukele was reelected, he visited the United States. He was a featured guest speaker at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland on Feb. 22. As he walked on stage, the crowd erupted with cheers. Some waved small Salvadoran flags while others chanted his name.

In the speech, he urged those in attendance to “put up a fight” against those who are not aligned with the values of Bukele and his supporters. He also criticized the officials in major cities in the U.S. for accepting crime and promoting illegal drug use.

Morena Ramirez (right) and her husband and watch the 45th annual Carnaval San Francisco parade in San Francisco on May 26, 2024. Ramirez’s hat bears the logo of Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele’s newly formed party, Nuevas Ideas, and a T-shirt with the president’s face. She voted for Bukele in the Feb. 4 election and plans to move back to El Salvador next year. (Daniel Eduardo Hernandez/KQED)

“How many young people have you lost to the streets of Philadelphia or San Francisco to fentanyl,” Bukele asked. “The same thing was happening in El Salvador. In the span of less than a decade, gangs took control of the country and our society.”

Bukele said his administration arrested the gang members, ousted corrupt judges and removed corrupt prosecutors to cleanse El Salvador.

El Salvador’s homicide rate hit its peak in 2015, reaching 102 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Salvadoran government. The homicide rate slowly declined, and in 2019, the year Bukele took office, the rate stood at 36 per 100,000. In his five-year tenure, the rate dropped to 2.4 per 100,000, making the small country one of the safest in Latin America.

Many Salvadoran Americans watched Bukele’s first term from afar, cheering on the president for his accomplishment. Calderón is among them.

“Hopefully, this peace we have now endures,” Calderón said. “Because if [Bukele] stops governing, and another corrupt person like before arrives, they will release the criminals from jail, and it’s going to get worse.”

But Bukele’s crackdown on violence has concerned human rights organizations. The Salvadoran president ordered a “state of exception” in March 2022 — a move that suspended four basic rights in El Salvador’s constitution, including the right to a defense upon detention, freedom of assembly, privacy in digital communications without police interception and a time limit to being detained before a trial.

Bukele said it was a necessary move to fight violent crime. In those two years, as the homicide rate plummeted, the incarceration rate rose and is now one of the highest in the world.

“If the police were created to bring law and order, let them bring law and order,” Bukele said in his CPAC speech. “If the judicial system was created to bring justice, let them bring justice.”

San Francisco’s criminal justice shift

San Francisco has been criticized as slowly shifting away from what’s been considered progressive criminal justice policies since voters ousted former District Attorney Chesa Boudin almost two years ago.

Mayor London Breed appointed Brooke Jenkins to be San Francisco’s new district attorney in 2022. Jenkins vowed to prioritize safety in the city. She was reelected later that year.

Demonstrators rally against the reelection of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in San Francisco on his Inauguration Day on June 1, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

“It would be easy to couch some of my expressions that you hear in sound bites as a return to tough-on-crime or a lock-em-up approach,” Jenkins said in her swearing-in speech. “For some, accountability may have to be prison.”

Prosecutors achieved convictions in 42% of cases during Jenkins’ first full year in office, an increase from a 36% conviction rate the year before.

Jenkins also announced a joint opioid task force in late 2023 alongside Breed and Gov. Gavin Newsom. That’s part of an overall crackdown on drug sales in San Francisco. Bukele has waged his own campaign against drug trafficking in El Salvador.

Calderón said the sale of fentanyl is destroying communities in the U.S., including San Francisco.

“There is a lot of crime here, and if there isn’t a strong hand,” she said, “the crime, rather than decreasing, goes up.”

The opioid task force, which aims to be fully operational by the end of this year, would treat San Francisco overdose deaths that can be traced back to a specific drug dealer as homicide cases. It’s a move being replicated by district attorneys in other California counties, such as Riverside, to crack down on suspected fentanyl dealers and the increase in overdose deaths.

San Francisco’s move toward more conservative policies to address crime and drug use gained voters’ endorsement in March when two initiatives Breed supported passed.

Proposition E will allow the city’s police department to deploy more public surveillance tools and reduce officer reporting requirements when there is a use of force. Proposition F will require welfare recipients suspected of using drugs to undergo testing and enter treatment.

Breed also supports a November ballot measure to reform Proposition 47 by removing provisions to ensure non-violent crimes were prosecuted as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

“I think there’s a fundamental shift in San Francisco’s political economy,” Roberto Lovato said.

Lovato compared Bay Area politics to El Salvador’s current political strategy — creating short-term solutions to showcase on social media to gain support. It’s a strategy Lovato believes has worked on the Salvadoran-American population when voting for Bukele.

“In the case of Salvadorans, you have the fascist culture that influenced our families,” Lovato said. “There are fewer and fewer alternatives for people to think outside of a fascist framework. So Bukele’s appeal should not surprise us.”

Salvadoran Americans in San Francisco

Lovato, 61, is the author of Unforgetting, a book about intergenerational trauma between the United States and El Salvador. He’s documented the long-term effects that El Salvador’s violent history has had on immigrants.

El Salvador was once considered one of the most violent in Latin America. In the 20th century, the country saw a rise of militarization within its government around the same time as its coffee exportation grew. Uprisings grew due to discontent with the government and were quickly squashed, most notably an event in 1932 named “La Matanza,” which means the massacre.

A Salvadoran flag flies during the 45th annual Carnaval San Francisco held in the Mission district in San Francisco on May 26, 2024. (Daniel Eduardo Hernandez/KQED)

To leave that violence, Lovato’s parents immigrated to the Mission District in the ’40s.

“I know that it is one of, if not the most, consistently dictated societies,” Lovato said. “So if you want to understand our families, they’re families that have fled or been shaped by historic, deeply rooted fascism in the heart of El Salvador through the long-standing military dictatorship.”

Salvadorans continued to live in a state of militarization for decades. Then, a leftist guerilla movement named the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front grew as it promised to topple the government, a move that led to a 12-year civil war beginning in 1980.

The war killed tens of thousands of people, including multiple massacres of women, children and civilians, with death tolls in the several hundreds. It pushed another wave of migration out of El Salvador, Lovato said.

While living in San Francisco, Lovato was surrounded by Central American activists who opposed El Salvador’s long-standing right-wing government. Many of them resided in the Mission District and held meetings to plan how to provide aid for revolutionaries throughout Latin America.

Lovato said he was among Salvadoran activists living in San Francisco who went to El Salvador to join the guerilla movement and fight in the war.

“There is a long history of revolutionary culture in the Mission,” Lovato said.

Phil Josselyn, a long-time member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), attends a rally against the reelection of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in San Francisco on his Inauguration Day on June 1, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Phil Josselyn, 76, is a member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). The organization actively participated in activism in San Francisco during the Salvadoran civil war.

Josselyn recalled how he helped to send vehicles with donated supplies to El Salvador and marched through the streets in San Francisco, calling for the mayor to condemn U.S. involvement in the war.

“We did a big march at the Oakland Naval Supply Center over in Oakland,” Josselyn said. “We had 200 people blockading the gate, and the police came in and arrested everybody.”

After the Salvadoran civil war ended in 1992, the leftist guerilla movement, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, became a political party. The conservative party in power throughout the civil war, named the Nationalist Republican Alliance, remained an opposing force in Salvadoran politics throughout the years following the war. A populist movement grew from the idea that both parties had been corrupted, leading to the election of a newly formed third party led by Bukele.

The Bay Area chapter of CISPES has continued its activism throughout the war and post-war period. The group now focuses on protesting Bukele’s presidential actions. Their members have spoken to Salvadoran organizers, many of whom recounted stories of retaliation for speaking about concerns with Bukele’s administration. Some of their members have also observed Salvadoran elections for years to ensure a smooth democratic process.

Leti Morales, a member of CISPES, observed the election process in San Francisco at two polling stations in hotel conference rooms.

“The first location I was in was the larger hotel. I think the final count was like 2,500,” Morales said. “At the second location, it was about like 1,300 people.”

How Bay Area Salvadorans could vote

Latinos in the Bay Area have been navigating politics much differently than in other parts of California, according to Marcela García-Castañon, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University. She has surveyed different communities’ political sentiments for almost a decade.

Aminta Calderón, 73, left, hands a large pot to her coworker at her family’s pupusería in the Mission District in San Francisco on June 3, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

“One of the questions we ask, for example, is ‘What are the most important topics facing your community?’ And in the Bay Area, you see a much higher propensity of people being really specific,” García-Castañon said. “Things like police brutality and or Black Lives Matter. They name the movements, they use the language.”

Her most recent survey was held in 2022. It showed that those who had been a victim of crime or gun violence were looking for the criminal justice system to be more responsive.

“Responsiveness did not not necessarily mean ‘lock-them-all-up,” she said.

García-Castañon said the recent survey had an oversample of youth, many of whom came from immigrant families. Her survey also showed those respondents did not feel represented by the government.

Recent polls have shown that Latinos, who have been long-standing left voters, have been shifting to the right. Lovato believes there is a silent majority of those with left-wing ideology, especially younger Salvadorans.

“I think factors like peer pressure, the absolute domination of the media sphere and its effects in its society has a silencing effect,” Lovato said. “Do you really want to speak out when it feels like everybody online and offline is pro-Bukele?”

Mission District pupusería owner Aminta Calderón, on the other hand, said she could see herself voting for someone in San Francisco whose politics reflected Bukele’s administration.

“This country is very tolerant, and many are taking advantage of that,” Calderón said. “If there wasn’t as much tolerance here, then these criminals would stop coming out.”


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